Spike Lee’s latest film is based on a chapter in the life of former Colorado Springs police officer, Ron Stallworth – specifically, the chapter in which he had the bright idea – as an African-American – to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan, and generally undermine their then-‘Grand Wizard’, David Duke. The movie begins with Stallworth (portrayed by John David Washington) entering the Department as its first ever African-American officer, and quickly picking up an undercover assignment to monitor public feeling towards some of the more inflammatory Civil Rights rhetoric.
As the movie glides soulfully along, this side of Stallworth’s work soon collides with a project of his own, as he decides to make contact with the Klan via a newspaper advertisement, and somehow manages to convince his superiors to sign-off on the questionable scheme. Having been invited to meet the leader of the local charter, Stallworth enlists the help of fair-skinned Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver); the plan being for Ron to liaise with the Klan via telephone, with Flip attending any face-to-face meetings in his place. Two sides of the same fake coin.
Stallworth’s ludicrous operation is hard to reconcile – as cinema, let alone as a ‘true story’ – and viewers would be well advised to take any suggestion that the movie is historically accurate with a rather large pinch of salt. The recklessness inherent in the scheme becomes clear as we watch Flip, wire and all, muddle his way through various asinine rites of passage, with Stallworth observing from a poorly concealed station wagon – to carry out surveillance on the Klansmen and intervene where necessary.
Though the prospect of the Stallworths being discovered makes the action tense enough, there is never really a sense that either party will actually come to serious harm; the Colorado Springs charter of the Klan is portrayed as well-intentioned (in the context of their obnoxious white supremacy), but ultimately feckless – and what might otherwise be uncomfortable scenes are transformed into hilarious skits. The group might talk the big talk, paying lip service to their hatred of minorities, but by and large their toothless organisation exists simply to organise pyjama parties and movie nights.
Though the film makes unavoidable references to the sociopolitical issues of the day, BlacKkKlansman isn’t overly political – in the sense that it isn’t some blatant propaganda piece, trying to force ideology down viewers’ throats. I never got the sense that Spike Lee was at pains to make a point here, as directors too often are; instead, it felt as though he was simply enjoying the opportunity of telling a story that is worth being told – taking a few creative liberties along the way.
Discussions around issues of race are perhaps always going to be polarising, but the humour at play in Lee’s movie helps to strike a comfortable balance. Importantly, BlacKkKlansman doesn’t rely on shocking scenes to evoke an emotional response from the audience (lynching and cross-burning are mentioned, but aren’t depicted in any gratuitous way); the film doesn’t need such crude imagery – it undermines the Klansmen in more subtle ways, making them, and the ideologies they espoused, seem laughable.
Verdict: DO WATCH /
The struggles embodied by this tale from the 1970s are as relevant today as they have ever been – having been brought into sharp focus by the Black Lives Matter movement. These are themes which undoubtedly have the potential to be divisive; however, BlacKkKlansman’s comic approach to the issues make it an enjoyable experience, rather than a harrowing one. Excellent performances, a killer soundtrack, and a solid – if incredible – script make this a must watch!